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Current Situation Makes Political Dialogue Unlikely in Burma - 2003-06-14

Burma's foremost democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is again in detention following an attack on her and her followers by a government-backed mob in which scores are reported to have been killed or injured. The current climate makes any effort to rekindle a dialogue between the military government and the pro-democracy opposition extremely unlikely.

In dealing with the democratic opposition, Burma's generals have over the years swung back and forth between cautious conciliation and heads-on confrontation. But with each confrontation, such as the most recent one on May 30, positions harden and suspicions deepen.

Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested in 1989 and released from house arrest six years later. After another confrontation while testing the limits on her movements in 2000, she was again confined to her home for 19 months, and released last year. Now she is once again under house arrest. The government has made vague promises to release her when, as a spokesman put it, the situation is under control.

Josef Silverstein, a professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University and a leading authority on Burma, says hopes of a dialogue at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi's release last year were never realized. "If we go back to May 6th of last year, that was when the military said she was totally free, that she could travel, she could renew her contacts with the party, and gave some credence to the idea that there was a softening or a loosening, and maybe even the beginnings of a first step towards transition. But that never was followed up. The military never really spoke to her," he says. "They kept talking about confidence-building. And she finally got a little nonplussed by saying, "we have confidence, let's get down to the serious business of talking about the transition."

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the May 30 incident makes it clear that the military government had no real interest in a substantive dialogue with the pro-democracy movement. "It was pretty clear that the government wasn't intending to move forward. The question was sort of what way they would try to stop it. And I guess that they decided to try to stop it in a very clumsy and heavy-handed way," he says.

Most analysts believe the swing between conciliation and confrontation is indicative of disagreements among the top generals over how to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers.

The most senior general, Than Shwe, is believed to favor a hard-line approach. Mr. Silverstein believes the May 30 incident underscores the power of Than Shwe over the other two top generals, intelligence chief Khin Nyunt and army chief Maung Aye, and an endorsement of his tough approach. "In my estimation, these men are not close. But they are bound together by hierarchy and by the tradition of the army, and, most of all by the acknowledgment that if they separate, the army will collapse. So they do stand together. I think they have different objectives. I think they may very well have different ideas about how to deal with Suu Kyi and the people. But thus far Than Shwe has been able to manipulate and hold all power in that triumvirate," he says.

Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch says that with each confrontation, chances of achieving a political compromise between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi become more remote. "It will take a long time to rebuild trust. Aun San Suu Kyi will be very, very cautious before she engages in another round of dialogue with them. There will very likely be private and informal contacts, and people will read a lot into them," he says. "But I think it's going to be a long time before there's a genuine discussion about political reform that would involve in some way the two sides working together."

The United States has called for stepped-up international pressure on Burma for change, and discussions are under way in the U.S. Congress about imposing sanctions on Burmese imports. But analysts say Burma's neighbors in Southeast Asia are sticking to a collective policy of refraining from criticism of each other, and little support is expected from that quarter.